Thursday, March 30, 2017

Go Poem #16 -- Imaginings Begin With "If"

by Jason Stephenson

Sometimes I like to ask one of my students to read our poem aloud, but I always make sure to read "If I Were A Dog" by Richard Shelton aloud to my class. It takes some practice to know how to deliver the lines because, as most students will notice, there are no commas or periods. The only form of punctuation is the apostrophe. We might discuss that -- the lack of punctuation and its effect of creating a doglike speaker whose thoughts run together.

Actually, according to the second stanza of the poem, the speaker is a human, only imagining if he or she were a dog. The speaker uses the subjunctive to imagine a different reality. As a class, we might discuss what is "doglike" about the poem. Possible answers include the master, the stick, the licking, the peeing, the fetching. Usually, though, I let students drive most of the discussion: What did they notice about the poem? What do they have questions about?

We don’t always respond to a poem by writing, but “If I Were a Dog” cries out for imitation. I ask students to take the title and replace Dog with something else: “If I Were a __________.” In the past, students have chosen to write about cabbages, teachers, and even the opposite gender. (Think “If I Were a Boy” by BeyoncĂ©) Here’s a fine example from one of my students.

If I Were a Dollar
I would be lost from wallets
and pockets
left on the street
until I was found by a young man
looking to buy a pack of gum
or some Altoids
then I’d be given as change
to begin the adventure again
but since I’m not a dollar
I stay within the same
routine every day
never getting to see
the world
If I were a dollar
I’d be given as a gift
or a tip
or maybe made
into a crane
or maybe I’d be dropped
into a drainage hole
lost in the sewer forever
but even still
I’d be on an adventure
if I were a dollar.

--Jared C.

Jason Stephenson teaches creative writing at Deer Creek High School in Edmond, Oklahoma.

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